Fresh Expressions: Evangelism for Our Culture

June 28th, 2013

I grew up Methodist, became Baptist as a teen, wandered around the “religious cereal aisle” in my college years, and eventually in my mid-twenties, I found the ancient liturgy, rich history, and progressive theology of the Episcopal Church. Nonetheless, the ten years after my adult confirmation in the Episcopal Church was fraught with a search—a bouncing around from community to community, and sometimes no community at all—yearning for a deep, beyond Sunday, communally intimate, spiritually forming, faith exploring, gifts-engaging community, in which I and my family, could sojourn with others who were also seeking God’s grace. For ten years, I was then, what some now are calling, a religiously unaffiliated person. I was a “None.” I was a person who, if I had been polled about my religious affiliation in a national survey, would have claimed “no religious affiliation at all.”

We know there is a cultural shift taking place; we know technology is changing faster than we can keep up, we know that social media is beginning to change how we relate to one another. “So what,” you may say. In 1989, the American Religious Identification Survey showed that 8% of the American population claimed no religious affiliation at all (the so called “NONES). In 2009, twenty years later, that number moved to 16% of the American Population responded to the survey as “NONES.”

In 2012, the Pew Research survey indicated that 19.6% of the American population now claims, no religious affiliation. Diana Butler Bass asserts, “The religious unaffiliateds are primarily young adults. In the United States, somewhere in the range of 25 to 30 percent of the population under thirty neither attend religious services nor have any religious preference, although about half of the unaffiliated group still say that they believe in God or understand themselves to be spiritual.”

Fresh Expressions for the Culture

It seems the key to effective and lasting ministry in any culture, is that those ministering must recognize the uniqueness of that culture and thus, examine how they might create space for "robust, theological dialogue” within our ever-changing culture. This discovery is nothing new, because if we look back through the history of the Christian community, we will recognize that intimate relationships of trust, birthed through authentic communities, is embedded in the DNA of the followers of Jesus.

Consider the story in the Acts of the Apostles of the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens. Paul was a little discouraged to learn that the city was full of idols, but this did not stop him from engaging in “robust theological dialogue” in the marketplace, and with all types of people. Paul debated with some well-learned philosophers (Epicurean and Stoic to be exact), but Paul engaged openly with them, only after he had been in the marketplace and learned about the culture. Those same philosophers invited Paul to join them at the Aeropagus, and it was there that Paul used what he learned from the marketplace to continue to share the Good News. Paul proclaimed,

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23 NIV)

Paul modeled for us, a fundamental concept in discipleship, because he learned it from the Master himself; Jesus. We must intimately know our context. Jesus spent time in the marketplace listening to the people, getting to know them, hearing about their culture, experiencing their societal nuances, and it was here where he taught about the Kingdom of God. I wonder, if the Apostle Paul were to traverse the American frontier today vs. the ancient Athenian metropolitan, would he say to us, “People of America! I see that in every way you are very spiritual, but increasingly less religious.”

There seems to be a misguided paradigm in U.S. culture today, that somehow one can travel a lone spiritual path, just as one might traverse the lone path of technological social interaction. The phrase “spiritual but not religious” seems to be a cry from the soul for a deeper engagement with the divine.

Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity after Religion asserts,

“To say that one is ‘spiritual but not religious’ or ‘spiritual and religious’ is often a way of saying, ‘I am dissatisfied with the way things are, and I want to find a new way of connecting with God, my neighbor, and my own life.’ It might not be a thoughtless mantra at all—in many cases, it may well be a considered commentary on religious institutions, doctrine, and piety.”  

What Bass seems to be saying, many of us may not like to hear: The church may need to change how we relate to the world in order to be a light to the world.

We MUST Experiment

In my current ministry in the Diocese of Southwest Florida, I assist the Bishop in forming new communities of faith. As Missioner, I explore, plan, and work through ecumenical, diocesan and community partners to set the conditions and plans that lead to such communities. I am a seeker of "modern wells," "safe spaces," and "third places" in which, I try to gently hold hearts that are seeking grace, reconciliation, and love in Christ. I encourage and send out new leaders to do likewise.

I am less like a practitioner of “tried and true” methods of church planting or even “hip and happening” methods of emerging church. My pioneering colleagues and I are more like explorers, experimenters, and ecclesiological scientists. Our laboratories are out there in the marketplace, where we are trying to create spaces for robust theological exploration with people who are on the margins of the institutional church. We invite people to Pub Theology groups, dinner groups, home churches, and coffeehouse groups where we explore deep, theological questions like, “Who is Jesus, and what is this “Way” that he taught?” “What is liturgy, and why is tradition something in which we might find something beyond ourselves?” “What is prayer, and what do the ancient prayer practices have to do with life today?”

Recently, my spouse and I facilitated a group in Sarasota, where we spent two hours with a couple we had never met before; one of our group was a self-proclaimed atheist who does not attend church, the other a woman who grew up in a Jewish family but had never participated in the faith. We explored so many topics that evening and by the end of the night, my head was spinning. I would not have traded that evening for anything, because the last remark the woman made to me after our little dinner gathering was this, “My prior negative impression of all Christians, is no more.”

In addition to gatherings like this, each week, I spend two to three hours in a coffeehouse in one of the fastest-growing, youngest communities in all of Southwest Florida. At this little coffeehouse, I know all the Baristas and they know me, both as a priest and as a friend. When I arrive, they readily tell me what is going on in their lives, they ask me to pray for them, and we discuss God openly. Every single time I sit in my favorite chair and sip my latte, I find myself in a robust theological discussion.

In my experience, the statistics we hear about in the ARIS survey and the 2012 Pew report, seem to hold true. More and more people are “spiritual but not religious,” but I believe people are still yearning deeply for authentic community in which, they can explore their questions with others who will listen, who are willing to wrestle with hard questions, and who will readily seek understanding, provide attentive hearts, and are willing to be patient, as they walk a spiritual pathway. Presenting the Good News of God in Christ Jesus in this postmodern culture is going to take much more than merely finding and implementing the latest marketing scheme, buying and starting the hippest new young adult program, or hiring the best contemporary music band.

In the book Ancient Faith, Future Mission, Stephanie Spellers offers some sound advice for those of us, who wish to effectively continue God’s mission in the 21st century,

“We start by creating some common ground where we can sit down and learn the language and culture of the people we are seeking to serve; listen to their questions; understand their concerns; and then begin to share with them the story of Christ. As we serve, listen and proclaim, so the possibility of church is born: a community formed by the impact of the story of Christ and the witness of his church.”

What We Can Do

The institutional church does not have to shrug off our heritage, our tradition, or even our liturgy, and we do not have to add another program to the plethora of programs, already overflowing on all our plates. It would seem we may just need to embrace that which the emergent movementfavors now; “the sharing of experiences via testimonies, prayer, group recitation, sharing meals and other communal practices, which many Emergents believe are more personal and sincere than propositional presentations of the Gospel.”

 We must move out of our four walls, and move out into the marketplace. We must meet people, just as Our Lord met them; we must meet them, not to proposition them or to sell them the Gospel. Lord knows, people today are confronted with nearly 5,000 propositions, enticements, or advertisements every single day. It would seem, the message of Jesus, the Good News of love, reconciliation, grace and mercy, is getting lost in the plethora of messages offering consumer fulfillment. Sharing the Good News today requires us to once again, develop relationships of trust through conversation and listening.

I encourage you to get out their in the marketplace and listen to those whom God loves, those with whom God offers reconciliatory grace, and those to whom we are sent as messengers. We must never forget, as we weigh our decision to step out and take a risk to go out and make disciples, that, as Spellers says, “every church owed its existence to the dedicated ministry of a particular group of Christians, at a particular time who were seeking to respond to the needs and challenges of their day, by establishing some new expression of Christian life.”

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